Congress Creates the Bill of Rights
These activities enable students to explore Congress Creates the Bill of Rights, a mobile app for tablets and eBook from the Center for Legislative Archives.
The mobile app is an interactive learning tool for tablets that situates the user in the proposals, debates, and revisions in Congress that shaped the Bill of Rights. Its menu-based organization presents a historic overview, a detailed study of the evolving language of each proposed amendment as it was shaped in the House and Senate, a close-up look at essential documents, and opportunities for participation and reflection designed for individual or collaborative exploration.
The app is available for download on iPads in the App Store and on Android devices in Google Play. There is a PDF version of the content of the app. The PDF is divided into four sections: Get the Background, Go Inside the First Congress, Amendments in Process, and Join the Debate.
The eBook presents a historic narrative focusing on James Madison's leadership role in creating the Bill of Rights. Starting with the crises facing the nation in the 1780s, the narrative traces the call for constitutional amendments from the state ratification conventions and takes the reader inside Congress as Madison and the First Congress worked to formulate a set of amendments to send to the states.
By exploring the app and eBook, students will learn about the historic role of Congress in proposing amendments—known as the Bill of Rights—that shored up public support for the newly ratified Constitution. The students will analyze a remarkable primary source that documents a great deal of the history. They will also explore the process of how James Madison led Congress to formulate the Bill of Rights through a series of compromises that yielded one of the nation’s great Charters of Freedom. The app will immerse them in the process of creation, and the eBook will present the historic narrative of the accomplishment.
- Why was a Bill of Rights needed in 1789?
- What was James Madison’s role in creating it?
- What constitutional role did Congress fulfill in proposing amendments?
Recommended Grade Levels
American History; U.S. Government; Civics
Topics included in this lesson
The Bill of Rights, Constitution, James Madison, constitutional amendments, Federalists, Anti-Federalists
- Bill of Rights
- Article V of the Constitution
Rights in the Classroom, Introductory Activity
Begin a class discussion about rights in which students consider two dimensions of rights: specific protections for individuals and general limits on authority.
Discussion questions should include:
- What specific protections for individuals apply to students?
- What specific protections for individuals apply to teachers?
- Are these sets of protections distinct from one another or shared to some degree?
- What limits are placed on the authority of teachers?
- What limits are placed on the authority of students?
- What limits on authority do they share? (For instance, school rules and class policies limit student's authority to decide certain issues, while contracts and school policies limit certain actions by teachers.)
Ask students to summarize the discussion by completing the Introductory Worksheet.
Direct the class to draw from information they listed on the Introductory Worksheet to create a bill of rights for the classroom.
Important topics to consider include:
- What specific protections for individuals should be guaranteed?
- What limitations on authority should be included?
- How will the class determine what to include in this Bill of Rights? Simple majority? Super-majority? Unanimous vote? What vote does the teacher or administration have?
Unlocking the App, Activity 1
Divide the class into small groups. Each group will analyze the featured document using the Senate Mark Up feature of the app, Worksheet 1, and Worksheet 2. After the members of each group have completed the worksheets, each group will discuss the following questions:
- What was the purpose the featured document?
- What is the historical significance of the featured document?
- What insight does the Senate Mark Up lend into the time when it was created?
When each group has finished sharing and discussing, each group will select a spokesperson to share the group's results with the class.
Unlocking the App, Activity 2
Divide the class into small groups. Use Worksheet 3 to analyze one issue from the Issues and Positions feature of the app.
Unlocking the App, Activity 3
Divide the class into small groups or have the students work individually. Direct students to use Worksheet 4 to analyze the First Amendment (House Proposed Articles Three and Four) at each step of its revision in Congress as detailed in the Close Up on Compromise feature of the app. When the students complete the worksheet, direct the class to compare and contrast the versions of the proposed amendment by discussing the following questions:
- At which date was the proposed amendment the most different from the final text of the First Amendment?
- Which additional changes in wording (if any) would make the First Amendment a better match for today's world?
Unlocking the App, Activity 4
Divide the class into small groups. Assign each group one (or more) of the 17 amendments passed by the House in the Amendments in Process feature of the app. Each group will use Worksheet 5 to translate their assigned amendment(s) as passed by the House into an 8-12 word "tweet."
Next, direct each group to study the historical context of their proposed amendment in the Amendments in Process feature of the app. Each group will use Worksheet 5 to trace the development of their assigned amendment and determine if the main idea identified in their tweet was also present in each of the steps. The groups should answer the questions on Worksheet 5 to prepare for class discussion. Worksheet 6 should be posted or projected on an overhead so that each group can report their findings and share with the class.
The groups will then present their responses to Worksheets 5 and 6 to the class. When all groups have presented, have a class discussion using the following questions:
- Which proposed amendments were present from the state conventions to the Bill of Rights as ratified by the states?
- Which ideas from state conventions were not present in the final Bill of Rights?
- Which proposed amendments originated with James Madison? Which of those were not present in the final Bill of Rights?
- Which proposed amendments were merged at various points in the process?
These questions provide an opportunity to reflect on four important historical issues about the First Congress and the Bill of Rights. They can be considered before or after exploring the app, and they can be addressed individually or in a group discussion.
- Many feel that without James Madison's leadership there would have been no Bill of Rights. At the same time, the Bill of Rights that was created was not exactly what Madison had originally proposed.
- Taking stock of Madison's leadership and achievement in proposing amendments, how successful was he as a leader in the creation of the Bill of Rights?
- If Madison had not provided leadership on amendments, and if the First Congress had not started the process of creating the Bill of Rights, how might the history of the early republic have been different?
- 2. Anti-Federalist leader Aedanus Burke (SC) dismissed James Madison's proposed amendments as "little better than whip syllabub, frothy, full of wind, formed only to please the palate."
- Why might an Anti-Federalist have expressed this opinion?
- Did his assessment have some validity?
- Following the suggestion of Roger Sherman, Congress decided to attach the Bill of Rights to the end of the Constitution rather than accepting James Madison's approach to change the text of the document itself.
- How might the Constitution and Bill of Rights have been affected by following Madison's approach instead of Sherman's?
- Creating the Bill of Rights was one of the early accomplishments that demonstrated that the First Congress could serve as a forum to resolve important national issues.
- How did the legislative process by which each amendment was considered bring different points of view to bear upon the amendments and allow different voices to shape each of them?
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